At blind volleyball, a favorite offseason pastime of the Michigan men’s gymnastics team, freshman Ian Makowske is always in great demand.
The gymnasts, avid fans of the women’s volleyball team, play the game many days after practice during fall and summer. They use tall blue panel mats between the teams instead of a net, making it impossible to see the other team – or defend against sneak attacks. Makowske is consistently one of the first players picked, and will be one of the starters when the gymnasts challenge the volleyball team to a contest of the blind variety after their season ends.
“He’s one of our key players in blind volleyball,” junior Jamie Thompson said. “Everybody fights over Ian. He’s got this kick-ass serve and he’s a good spiker.”
Until Feb. 2, that was Makowske’s only spot in a starting lineup. But against Iowa, he finally got the chance to compete as a gymnast.
His father made last-minute travel plans, catching a 3 a.m. flight to watch his son’s collegiate debut that afternoon in Iowa City.
At first, it didn’t seem as though the trip would have a happy ending. Makowske came off the pommel horse during his first set – a mistake that might have sent him into a tailspin one year ago.
But not this year.
The freshman rebounded immediately, posting Michigan’s second-highest floor score and one of its few hits during a mostly dismal high-bar rotation.
“Just the collegiate debut alone was great, but having my dad there too made it even better,” Makowske said. “It was really great to be able to show him what I’m doing with all the help he’s given me.”
For Makowske, Michigan was destiny.
His grandfather, Paul DeMarrais, graduated from Michigan in 1956. His parents met as students at the University in the early eighties. His uncle, Quinn DeMarrais, played on the Michigan baseball team and graduated in 2000. In fact, most of his extended family still bleeds maize and blue.
“They said I could go to any school I wanted,” Makowske said. “As long as it was in Ann Arbor.”
Makowske dreamt of competing for Michigan for most of his life. A poster of the 1999 national champion men’s gymnastics team still hangs in his bedroom at home in Redding, Conn. When he received his letter of acceptance, Makowske ripped up the rest of his half-finished applications.
So when Makowske faced the prospect of redshirting his first year, he balked. Though his coaches told him he’d realistically only compete in one or two meets in his freshman season, Makowske knew it was crucial to keep alive the possibility of making the lineup. Without that motivation, he wasn’t sure if his improvements would continue.
“If that possibility wasn’t there . I don’t know if I would have the same work ethic,” Makowske said.
The Iowa meet was the shot he’d been waiting for, and he didn’t waste it.
Success didn’t just fall into Makowske’s lap, though. Behind that debut were six months of improving his skills, difficulty and form. His propensity for being the last guy out of the gym and his easygoing, upbeat personality made him an instant hit with his teammates.
Rooming with freshman Chris Cameron, one of the few who can match Makowske’s intensity, accelerated the dramatic improvement.
As freshmen in West Quad, they have constant opportunities to critique and encourage each other.
“Other guys on the team, they don’t get that random time to talk,” Cameron said. “I think that really helps us stay accountable, because we know the person that we’re living with is watching us work out.”
While Makowske speaks in awe of Cameron’s talent and achievements – his appearances at USA Championships and on the Junior National Team – his roommate holds him in equal esteem, noting that Makowske “sets the standard for hard work.”
“Really, on all his events, he’s become a different gymnast,” Cameron said.